Friday, August 22, 2014

Planet Tiso

I recently heard the self-described Marxist blogger Giovanni Tiso being interviewed by Kim Hill. (Fancy that, you’re thinking; a left-wing guest on Kim Hill’s show. Who’d have thought?) On that occasion Tiso gave a remarkably convincing impersonation of a sane man. Almost had me fooled. Then someone drew my attention to his angry stream-of-consciousness yapping on Twitter about Jane Clifton’s latest Listener column. I’m now convinced that he’s unhinged and shouldn’t be allowed out in public without a minder.
Tiso can barely contain his fury that the Listener’s respected political columnist should have a different take on the Dirty Politics affair from his own. Such is the far left’s embrace of free speech. But you have to allow that Tiso is at least consistent in his intolerance of views that don’t square with his own. This after all is the man who, to his surprise and delight, managed to get two RadioLive hosts pulled off the air because he didn’t like what they said during the Roast Busters furore.
More intriguing still is Tiso’s apparent conviction that an eager world constantly awaits his latest pronouncement. He appears incapable of leaving Twitter alone for more than a few seconds. Given that he clearly doesn't have enough to do, perhaps some kind soul could offer him an honest job; he’s bound to have a doctorate in something useless. Or, failing that, at least adjust his medication.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The heavy hand of the electoral laws

Darren Watson’s Planet Key video is a wickedly clever piece of political satire, perhaps more so for Jeremy Jones’ visuals than for the song itself. That it has now become snagged in the electoral laws is ridiculous and dangerous. University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis suggested on Morning Report that the Electoral Commission is being super-cautious because newish electoral laws, passed in 2010, haven’t yet been tested in court. Whatever the explanation, something’s seriously wrong when the heavy hand of the law stifles legitimate political expression. If the law as written leaves the commission uncertain as to whether Planet Key is permissible, then it’s bad law and should be reviewed.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Shock, horror: man breaks ankle!

Morning Report today devoted nearly seven minutes to an accident on the Skyline luge at Rotorua – more than twice as much time as it gave to a fatal helicopter crash near Wanaka.  Guyon Espiner interviewed a man who witnessed the grisly spectacle while passing overhead on the chairlift, and who was clearly traumatised by the experience. The witness seemed indignant that there wasn’t a Victim Support team waiting at the top to offer immediate counselling.
Goodness me, there was blood visible. Children saw it too and no doubt would have been left permanently scarred. The witness was appalled at the Skyline staff’s apparently casual reaction to the tragedy. I half expected him to call for a commission of inquiry.

Espiner’s co-host Susie Ferguson then leapt in like a tag wrestler and grilled the company CEO, whose assurance that a paramedic and ambulance were promptly on the scene was apparently deemed inadequate. Ferguson wanted to know whether the accident victim might be permanently maimed, and when the perplexed CEO couldn’t answer that, not being a medical man, she imperiously demanded: “Why not?”
The company’s callous indifference was considered such an outrage that the item ran several minutes past the usual break for the 8.30am news.

A listener tuning in halfway through could have been excused for wondering what awful catastrophe had unfolded. In fact the accident victim had broken his ankle.
So: “Man breaks ankle on luge”. It’s not exactly up there with, say, the Carterton balloon tragedy.  

I’ve been on the Skyline luge a number of times, first with my kids and more recently with my grandchildren, and I’d be surprised if minor accidents like this weren’t a regular occurrence. People ride on luges because they provide a thrill. If there wasn’t an element of risk, the business wouldn’t exist. So why the fuss?
Morning Report can normally be counted on to provide a refuge from the confected non-news that other media outlets bombard us with. I bet I’m not the only listener hoping this was just a momentary lapse of judgment.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I know what Shakespeare would have said

Let me get this straight. Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil site is hacked in retaliation for a post that upset a lot of people and as a result, a great swag of incriminating emails ends up in the hands of Nicky Hager.
Meanwhile, Labour’s enemies discover there are weaknesses in the Labour Party’s website that enable them to go poking around there for sensitive information, some of which ends up with Slater.

I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me that if either of these acts was illegal, it’s more likely to have been the hacking of Whale Oil. So why, on Q+A and The Nation this morning, did the interviewers apply the blowtorch to Slater and go soft on Hager?
Taking advantage of a website’s slack security may, at worst, be ethically dodgy, but publishing the contents of private emails obtained by hacking is surely a lot more serious. Yet both Susan Wood (Q+A) and Lisa Owen (The Nation) let Hager off the hook while aggressively going after Slater. (Owen, for example, seemed to be demanding that Slater reveal sources, something no journalist would dream of doing.)

Hager can’t have believed his luck. But then, perhaps he’s come to expect this sort of friendly treatment. You can’t help but suspect that in the eyes of many in the media, Hager has a halo and Slater has horns and a forked tail.
I’m no cheerleader for Slater. His blog has earned its place in the media landscape but it’s sometimes gratuitously offensive, as when he wrote that a “feral” who crashed his car on the West Coast while trying to evade police deserved to die – the comment that supposedly triggered the attack on his website. He was making a legitimate point but overcooked it, presumably for the purpose of provoking a reaction, which he got - in spades.

The comments posted on Whale Oil, too, are often rabid, and I was pleased to hear him say this morning that he intends to exercise tighter moderation. Not before time.
I don’t like cosy collusion between journalists (or in this case bloggers) and cabinet ministers or government spin doctors either. They smell. But Slater is hardly the first media person to be favoured with sneaky leaks and tipoffs. As has been pointed out over the past few days, Helen Clark had her favourites in the press gallery too.

And anyway, what about Hager’s motives? He likes to call himself an investigative journalist, but he’s nothing of the sort. In truth he’s a polemicist who happens to use some journalistic skills, such as writing and ferreting out information (which, to be fair, he does pretty well, if selectively).
Hager dislikes being called an activist, but it’s a more honest description of his role than “journalist”. The giveaway is that he seems very choosy about the subjects he writes about, and in the way he covers them.

Invariably he pushes issues dear to the left, and does it in a way that presents the right – whether it’s the business sector, the National Party or the Exclusive Brethren – in the worst possible light. To put it another way, he’s agenda-driven. That isn’t journalism.
As proof of his supposed neutrality, he cites the fact that he embarrassed Clark’s Labour government in 2002 with his book Seeds of Distrust (published, like Dirty Politics, immediately before an election, so as to achieve maximum political impact), in which he exposed the accidental release of genetically modified corn.

But this doesn’t prove a thing – least of all that he had no political motive, as he would clearly like us to think. The truth, I suspect, is that Hager is well to the left of Labour and would have been hoping that the timely publication of Seeds of Distrust would benefit the Greens, a party which I believe he’s more attuned with.
Hager’s book was given the title Dirty Politics for a good reason – to create the impression of moral rot on the part of the government and its cheerleaders. The irony is that Hager is as much a part of the dirty politics he writes about as John Key, Slater, Judith Collins and Jason Ede. And I suspect the reaction of most neutral voters will be, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “A plague on all their houses”.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Is this the most bizarre campaign ever?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 13.)
This election is shaping up to be the strangest in my lifetime.
There’s a cacophony of minor parties scrambling for attention and a frenzied political bidding war in which there seems to be no limit on the extravagance of the promises made.

We’ve had an outbreak of thinly disguised xenophobia over the sale of a farm, a sideshow over the use of the phrase “Sugar Daddy”, and a blatant appeal to the emotions of voters who imagine New Zealand can raise the drawbridge and retreat into a cosy and safe economic fortress, 1970s-style.
And all this is taking place within the context of a seriously flawed electoral system originally devised  to prevent an extremist party such as the Nazis regaining power in Germany, as if that were somehow applicable to New Zealand.

The weirdness is so all-pervasive it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s begin with the largest (literally) and most bizarre factor of all.
The very name Kim Dotcom suggests a character from a Batman or Austin Powers movie. But while Dotcom likes to present himself as something of a fun-loving jester figure, he’s a noxious force in politics.

If there was any doubt about that, it was erased by the Internet-Mana Party video on YouTube in which Dotcom urged an apparently liquored-up audience of Christchurch students to chant “F--- John Key”.
Apologists for Dotcom have tried to excuse this as free expression and youthful exuberance. It was nothing of the sort.

Whatever you think about Key (and I’ve never been a fan) this was rabble-rousing at its basest and most puerile level. Dotcom looked like a grotesque cross between a gangsta rapper and the Fuhrer at Nuremberg. 
Policy? Issues? Never mind that tedious stuff. Let's bring it all down to mindless, hateful abuse.

The video did, however, serve one useful purpose: it left no one in any doubt that what primarily drives Dotcom is deep personal animosity against Key.

No matter what you think about the other figures in this election campaign, you have to allow that they are all motivated by genuine concern for New Zealand. But Dotcom doesn’t give that impression.
The question voters should ask themselves is whether a toxic personal grudge is a sound reason for entering politics (not forgetting, of course, that Dotcom may also be motivated by a desperate desire to avoid extradition to the United States, where he’s wanted for Internet piracy).

Relax, the apologists for Internet-Mana say; Dotcom won’t necessarily have any influence on party policy. If you believe that, you probably also believe in chem trails. He doesn’t strike me as the sort of person to put $3 million into a party if he’s not going to have any control over it.
Which brings us to Laila Harre, the nominal leader of the Dotcom-funded party. Of all the performers in the current political circus, she is the one whose reputation has been most damaged.

Harre once commanded respect as a leftist politician of conviction. In aligning herself with Dotcom she has redefined herself as a rank opportunist – a retread, desperate to revive her political career even if it means throwing her lot in with a flashy and extremely rich capitalist entrepreneur with an opaque agenda.
Try as she might, she will never overcome the perception that she has betrayed her proletarian principles in the pursuit of power.

So what of the other players in this most bizarre election campaign?
There’s the cerebral and unworldly Jamie Whyte, whose Herculean task is to rebuild the discredited Act. Whyte is a conviction politician, just as Harre once was on the other side, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Act has no gas left in its tank.

There’s Colin Craig, who hopes to capture the substantial social conservative vote, but who seems determined to sabotage himself. I mean, who persuaded him to pose for that tragically misguided photo where he’s lying in the grass with a come-hither look?
Craig is another conviction politician, but like Whyte, he’s up against a media that is at worst hostile, at best unsympathetic. The last thing he needs is to provide ammunition to the mockers, but he can’t seem to help himself.

Then there’s Winston Peters. There’s always Winston Peters. But I wonder if this could be the old warhorse’s last charge. If New Zealand First doesn’t get past the five per cent threshold, I can’t see Peters sticking around for another three years – in which case that could be the end of the party too, unless Ron Mark can be persuaded to take over.
And of course, lastly there’s Key. His preternatural popularity is a complete mystery, but you can’t argue with the opinion polls.

The only thing standing between Key and a third election victory is the MMP system, the vagaries of which could still deliver a rogue result in the form of a dysfunctional coalition cobbled together from the disparate, angry forces of the left.
As a journalist, I find it riveting; as a citizen concerned for our future, I find myself getting more apprehensive as the big day approaches.

FOOTNOTE: This was written last weekend, before the Nicky Hager bombshell. What was previously our most bizarre campaign ever is now also shaping up to be the ugliest.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Socialism, Bob Harvey-style

(First published in the Dominion Post, August 8.)
I WAS INTRIGUED to hear Sir Bob Harvey, the personable former Waitakere mayor and tireless champion of West Auckland, describe himself on TVNZ’s Q+A programme recently as a socialist.
Obviously the meaning of the word has changed. The classical definition of a socialist is someone who believes in state control of the economy, but no intelligent person – and Harvey is an intelligent man – could seriously argue that the heavy hand of the state creates happy, prosperous societies.

I mean, what shining examples are there? The Soviet Union? North Korea? Chaotic, wretched Venezuela, perhaps?
The truth is that wherever it has been tried, socialism has been synonymous with economic failure, misery and repression.  That’s why it’s almost extinct. People aren’t stupid.

I can only conclude, therefore, that when people like Harvey describe themselves as socialists, they actually mean something else – perhaps a gentler, kinder socialism that hasn’t yet been revealed to the rest of us.
Here’s my theory. I suspect that to call yourself a socialist these days is to announce to the world that you have a social conscience, and are therefore on a higher moral plane than all those heartless people who are interested only in their own wellbeing.

In addition to that, I suspect that “socialist” has become a code word for someone who feels guilty about enjoying the trappings of capitalism – the stylish clothes, the overseas holidays, the restored villas in fashionable inner-city suburbs.
Most of the people I know who think of themselves as socialists enjoy pretty sweet lives. Capitalism has been very kind to them. I bet Harvey (who made his name in advertising, possibly the least socialist business imaginable) isn’t exactly short of a buck.

But we’re talking about a generation that lived through the heady era of the protest movement, when capitalism was the enemy, and part of them has never moved on.
Even when they’ve grown sleek and prosperous, in their minds they’re still marching down Willis or Queen St protesting against apartheid or the Vietnam War. Calling themselves socialist is a convenient way of resolving the contradiction between their romantic ideals and the reality of their very comfortable capitalist lives.

True socialists like the founders of the Labour Party wouldn’t recognise these people.
Being a socialist in those days meant getting your head bashed in by a special constable on horseback. Now it means sitting around a Kelburn dinner table tut-tutting about income disparity while someone opens a bottle of 2003 Felton Road pinot noir and wonders whether to go to Morocco or France for their next holiday.

* * *

IT’S DECADES since newspapers decided they would no longer accept letters written under pseudonyms. Most require that the writer supply a full name, home address and phone number. It’s not foolproof, but it weeds out most of the mischief-makers who don’t have the guts to put their names to their opinions.
Predictably, the quality of letters improved almost overnight when the rules were changed.

Contrast this with the approach of the Sunday political TV programmes Q+A and The Nation, which seem happy to accept anonymous texts and emails commenting – often scurrilously – on the issues under discussion and the credibility of the politicians interviewed.
Some contributors provide a first name, but the viewer has no way of knowing whether it’s genuine. Occasionally the commenter is identified in full, but most are anonymous.

Given that the comments are displayed on screen almost instantaneously, there’s no way the producers can vet them in the hope of weeding out propagandists and barrow-pushers.
How many of the snide messages running across the bottom of the screen are from party members and activists? There’s no way of knowing. In effect, they’re no better than the cowardly trolls who infest the Internet.

* * *

I WONDER, is there a club for people who can’t stand Te Radar? If not, I might have to start one.
I admit I’m out of step with public opinion here. Clearly, lots of people love him. Why else would TVNZ (or to be precise, the taxpayer through New Zealand on Air) keep paying him to jaunt around the Pacific making prime-time documentaries?

But something about Te Radar irritates me, and I can’t figure out exactly what   it is. The frizzy hair? Those nerdy glasses? That nasal Kiwi voice? The contrived Peter Pan quirkiness? All of the above?
What bothers me most is that the people he encounters in faraway places might make the mistake of thinking he’s representative of the rest of us. Now there’s a scary thought.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Con Devitt and the decline of union militancy

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 30.)
Cornelius Devitt died in Wellington a couple of weeks ago. That name would mean nothing to younger New Zealanders, but to those of a certain age, Con Devitt was once a household name. In fact you could almost say he was public enemy number one.
Devitt was a trade union official. To be precise, he was secretary of the Boilermakers’ Union.

That may not sound significant, but the Boilermakers’ Union included the workers who did the welding on construction jobs involving structural steel.
It was a small union, but it wielded power far beyond its size because it effectively controlled some of the country’s biggest construction jobs. And in the 1970s, under Devitt’s leadership, the Boilermakers’ Union was synonymous with militancy and disruption.

Most notoriously, the union was blamed for endless delays in the building of Wellington’s showpiece BNZ Centre. Begun in 1973 and intended for completion in 1977, the 31-storey building wasn’t finished until 1984. The final cost was four times greater than the original estimate.
The BNZ site wasn’t the only one where the boilermakers made their presence felt. They were also involved in long-running disputes at Mangere Bridge, Marsden Point oil refinery and the Kawerau pulp and paper mill.

But the BNZ job caused the greatest outrage. It was in the heart of Wellington and thus smack-bang in the public eye. And because the BNZ in those days was still state-owned, the taxpayer had a direct stake in it. One consequence of the BNZ fiasco was that New Zealand architects stopped designing buildings that depended on structural steelwork.
I interviewed Devitt in 1995 and he insisted the union was made a scapegoat for other problems on the BNZ job. I’m sure there was an element of truth in that, but there was no doubt that the boilermakers were a bloody-minded lot who seized any excuse they could for downing tools. On one memorable occasion they went on strike because a union delegate didn’t like his company-issue boots.

Rob Muldoon was prime minister then, and he was in the habit of referring to “Clydeside militants” – a shorthand term for left-wing unionists from Britain who attained positions of influence in New Zealand unions. That was a direct reference to Devitt, whose early days were spent in Glasgow’s Clydeside area, then a hive of heavy industry. Devitt proudly told me it was known as “Red Clydeside” on account of its tradition of union militancy.
Devitt, who was 86 when he died, was one of the last of a generation of union leaders whose faces were very familiar to New Zealanders in the 1970s and early 80s. They included Bill Andersen (Drivers’ Union), Pat Kelly (Cleaners and Caretakers), Blue Kennedy and Frank McNulty (Meat Workers), Don Goodfellow (Railwaymen) and Jim Knox (Federation of Labour president).

Some were Marxists, though not always openly so. Factionalism ran deep within the union movement, not only between militants and conservatives (of whom the Irish Catholic Tony Neary, of the Electrical Workers’ Union, was the figurehead) but also within the left – most notably between Moscow-aligned communists and those who took their ideological cue from Beijing.
It was a time when militant unions wreaked economic havoc in key industries. Freezing works, the wharves, car assembly plants, transport (especially the Cook Strait ferries, which were seen as especially vulnerable) and the pulp and paper industry were often targeted.

It was ironic that Muldoon, despite his much-vaunted tough-guy image, never got on top of the union problem. Unions went on strike with almost complete impunity throughout his nine years in power, and no doubt contributed to the woefully sick economy that Labour inherited in 1984.
Only a handful of union survivors from that era remain. They include Ken Douglas, who went on to head the Council of Trade Unions, and former Seafarers’ Union president Dave Morgan, though neither remains active in union affairs. Douglas tried to hold the movement together when it began to break apart in the late 1980s and was savagely attacked for supposedly betraying the workers – another irony, given his socialist and militant credentials.

It all seems a lifetime ago, which I suppose it was. Yet that period of strong-arm unionism left an enduring legacy.
Many New Zealanders retain sharp memories of the damage done by industrial turmoil. That goes a long way toward explaining why the union movement today is a shadow of what it once was.

Economic upheaval, deregulation and globalisation wiped out the old centres of union power, such as the big freezing works and car assembly plants. Politicians did the rest, passing new employment laws that tipped the scales in favour of employers.
The abolition of compulsory trade union membership in 1991 was a turning point. Some militant blue-collar unions never wanted it in the first place, believing the movement was weakened by numerically large unions, such as those covering retail and clerical workers, whose members were not strongly committed to union principles and were reluctant to take industrial action.

Today, less than 17 percent of the labour force is unionised and some once-formidable unions no longer exist. Others have shrunk or have been absorbed by others. Power has shifted to white-collar unions, such as the teachers’ and nurses’ organisations.
There’s a new generation of union leaders – typically much better-educated than their predecessors, more media-savvy and less locked into old, class-warfare mindsets. And because unionism is no longer compulsory, unions have to work a lot harder to attract and retain members, which they do.

I believe that in some ways, the balance of power in industrial relations has swung too far in favour of employers. Workers need strong, effective representation to protect themselves against abuse and exploitation.
But if today’s union leaders want to understand why politicians have nobbled them, they need only look back at the rampant abuse of power by militant unions in the era of Con Devitt.